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Calvin: A Biography Cottret, Bernard




Cottret, Bernard; Calvin: A Biography (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2000. Translated by M.W. McDonald. Pp xv + 376. $45.99 CAN.)


In the final pages of his fine book Cottret asks, “Can one attempt a balanced portrait of Calvin that avoids the two usual ruts of monotonous piety or systematic denigration?” Cottret’s biography proves that one can. Written out of “wonder and exasperation”, his wonder arose at the genius of a thinker who not only authored the single most influential book of the Reformation but who also gave rise to a culture whose imprint can be identified throughout the West. His exasperation arose at the “bigotry of fellow Christians” who appeared eager to adulate Calvin but reluctant to admit his frailties.

A Protestant lay-Christian who preaches occasionally in his local congregation, Cottret is the founding chairperson of the Department of Humanities at Versailles-Saint-Quentin University in France. Awarded a prize for his biography Cromwell, he has also published substantive books on the Huguenots in England and the Political writings of Bolingbroke. Regardless of the topic addressed, however, he brings to all his work the skill for which French historians of modernity have gained their deserved reputation: a grasp of social history that forever keeps before readers the truth that intellectual life never occurs in a vacuum; rather it unfolds in a political, economic, military matrix. This matrix need not eclipse an intellectual revolution that is nothing less than Copernican; still, its bearing upon it cannot be denied, particularly with respect to the assaults, afflictions, and reactions that the makers of history evince. In this regard readers need only to note a fact found in few discussions of the Reformation and of the acerbic voice of its proponents; namely, that France was at war with the Hapsburgs from 1521-26, 1536-38, 1542-44, and 1551-59. All students of Calvin are alert to the significance of 1536 and 1559, the publication dates of the first and final edition of the Institutes. Cottret invariably recalls readers to the manifold turbulence and treachery, even occasional triumph, that are the context in which unforgettable theology is written and from which clay-footed theologians and leaders emerge.

Not surprisingly, then, a major strength of this book is found in the learning, discernment and assessment exemplified in the many excurses that adorn the book. His discussion of Renaissance humanism, for instance, details the influence the Renaissance had in providing at least the “tools” for the Reformation, even as it refuses to reduce the Reformation to an aspect of the

Renaissance. While divergences from the Renaissance ultimately overcame the Reformation’s continuities with it, Cottret admits that “Calvin remained, like so many other Reformers, a prodigal son of humanism.” In this regard Cottret probes thinkers who never fully sided with the Reformation as well as to those who did, noting precisely what humanism could do and what it was never going to do for “reformists” like Erasmus or Lefevre D’Etaples and “Reformers” like Calvin. D’Etaples (1460-1536), for instance, continued to believe that internal reform was possible for the Church whereas Calvin insisted it was not. Still, D’Etaples’ work is significant. He translated the bible into French, therein calling down the Church’s denunciation for maintaining that the three “Marys” (of Bethany, of Magdala, and the sinner) were just that, rather than three descriptions of the one “Magdalene.” Despite D’Etaples’ fine work on scripture, however Cottret correctly cautions us against “‘Protestantizing’ to excess this evangelical, who was devoted to the word of God.” Since he was “closer to the Reformers in his silences than in his words”, Cottret judiciously concludes, “What reason is there to annex him to either camp?”

In the same vein readers are brought up to date through brief expositions of Guillaume Briconnet, Marguerite de Navarre, and Gerard Roussel — not to mention his informative “digression” on the 15th century translations of the bible into Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, and Czech, all of which predated the Reformation, and all but one of which resisted it. And no student of Calvin can afford to pass up Cottret’s recapitulation of the history of Geneva, not to mention the nature, function and history of catechisms in the context of Calvin’s 1542 Catechism.

Yet it should not be thought that Cottret’s concern with social history beclouds his theological perception. Reading scripture aright he concurs with Calvin that even the risen, ascended Christ “must be in agony until the end of the world.” Admitting the place of Romans in the genesis and ethos of the Reformation, he maintains that “justification by faith” does not do justice to the theological identity and power of the French Reformation: Hebrews must be acknowledged as no less influential — paramount, in fact — just because Hebrews consistently extols the sole, sufficient sacrifice of Christ, thereby terminating definitively all discussion of merit, indulgences, and the horribilissimum, the sacrifice of the mass. Non-Reformers like Lucien Lefebvre elevated Romans but not Hebrews, and were able thereby to avoid that break with Catholic theology that entailed a break with the Catholic church.

Similar theological insight is evident as Cottret explores Calvin’s writings — major, minor, polemical, pastoral — as they appeared year after year. Probing Calvin’s first theological publication (his first script was a humanist discussion of Seneca’s De Clementia), Cottret concludes that Psychopannychia both aimed at refuting the Anabaptist notion of “soul sleep” and signalled Calvin’s awareness that Plato’s notion of the immortality of the soul and a Christian affirmation of the resurrection were ultimately incommensurable. And of course Cottret admires the architectonic elegance, symmetry and beauty of Calvin’s best-known work. “One enters the Institutes as though into a cathedral…a stone structure built to last.” Perceptively he acknowledges that Calvin exhausted himself through preaching just because preaching was not merely one of many important features of Protestantism but rather was “the very essence of the Reformation.”

Cottret’s masterly historical treatment explodes many myths, one being the oft-parroted pronouncement that Calvin tyrannized Geneva. In fact Calvin had to struggle relentlessly in the city, not least in order to forfend the encroachment of city’s Council upon matters pertaining to the life and discipline of the church. Only after 1555 was Calvin accorded the civic support he had long sought. Similarly dispelled is the notion that Calvin was self-important and craved seeing everything he said appear in print. Calvin knew that the sermon is an aural event, and the printed sermon is therefore (partially) denatured. Still, he bowed to public importuning and allowed his sermons to be published.

At the same time, Cottret’s book raises questions for this reviewer. While Cottret comes close several times to declaring the Christological revolution at the centre of the Reformation, he seems not to grasp that for the Reformers theology is Christology. To be sure, he admits that succeeding editions of the Institutes indicated that Christ was the “heart of the system”, but he does not exploit the Christo-logic that drove the Reformation theologically and rendered it qualitatively different from Catholicism with abuses subtracted and justification by faith added.

Similarly this reviewer is disappointed to find repeated several times over the misunderstanding that Zwingli expounded a “merely symbolic” notion of Holy Communion. Zwingli did not, and Calvin simply misread Zwingli on this matter. Cottret insists throughout that Calvin was never ordained. Admittedly, no record exists of Calvin’s ordination. Yet in light of what Calvin writes about the ordained ministry and the pastoral office, it is surely unreasonable to assume that the chief pastor of Geneva, who deplored the purported ministerial irregularities of the Anabaptists, would live to fulfil the functions of the ministry (“my ministry is dearer to me than life”) yet resist the church’s authorization.

Quoting Bernard of Chartres, “We are dwarfs, perched on the shoulders of giants; that is why we may be able to see farther than they”, Cottret gladly admits that Calvin remains such a giant for him. At the same time, Cottret has shown himself to be anything but a dwarf.

Victor Shepherd Professor of Historical Theology Tyndale Seminary
10 Dec. 02